Making capital out of punishment

For the UK government, criminal justice is just another arm of its social inclusion policy.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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Britain is ravaged by crime. The 1960s liberal consensus has eroded people’s sense of social responsibility, fuelling a culture of ‘thuggery and intimidation’. ‘Feral children’ are terrorising London boroughs, and people live in fear of violent crime. Decent, law-abiding citizens are crying out for the government to do something about it.

This was the picture given by prime minister Tony Blair and home secretary David Blunkett at the launch of the government’s five-year crime strategy, which proposed a series of tough new measures for dealing with social disorder.

But the crime strategy is less a response to a real public menace than a vehicle for New Labour’s political agenda. Rather than catching criminals, this is a plan for connecting with citizens. What we are seeing is an isolated political elite trying to use the police, courts and law for social inclusion, in an attempt to connect with people and show them that the government cares.

There is no evidence of a crime epidemic. Statistics out later this week are expected to show a rise in violent crime, with the most serious offences rising by 15 per cent and sexual offences up by five per cent (1). But numerous changes in the recording of crime over the past five years cast doubt on these statistics.

In 1998 the police expanded the kinds of incidents that would be counted in categories such as fraud, common assault and drug offences. More minor incidents – such as criminal damage under £20, harassment, or assault where no injury resulted – would now be logged as part of the crime stats. As a result of these changes, violent crime shot up by a massive 106 per cent (under the old set of measures it would have increased by 13 per cent) (2). Then in 2002 there was another shift in the counting rules, when police started recording all alleged offences – even if there was no evidence for them. The Home Office estimates that this inflated crime statistics by 10 per cent (3).

If the old measures are used, they suggest that crime has been on a level, or has even fallen, over the past seven years. According to Home Office minister Hazel Blears, once all these changes are taken into account, ‘total recorded crime remained broadly unchanged between 1997-98 and 2002-03’ (4). By the measure of the British Crime Survey (which relies on surveys rather than police figures), there has been a 25 per cent fall in crime between 1997 and 2002-3 (5).

And in spite of the government’s talk about community chaos, antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOs) seem to have been used for petty misdemeanours and annoyances. In the Forest of Dean, Gloucester, sheep owners have been threatened with ASBOs after residents complained about the nuisance caused by their free-roaming livestock. In Camden, north London, the music industry was threatened with ASBOs for persistent flyposting. And Wandsworth Council in London has taken action against bridge owners who allow birds to nest there and dirty the hats of passers-by (6). Wandering sheep, fly posters, pigeon poo – this is hardly the stuff of ‘thuggery and intimidation’.

It is also questionable whether people are really living in fear of crime. According to Home Office statistics for 2002/3, only seven per cent of those surveyed thought their quality of life was greatly affected by fear of crime. Meanwhile, only between two and five per cent thought they were likely to be a victim of serious crime over the following year (7).

But when it comes to measuring crime, the government wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it makes petty misdemeanours into crimes and claims that the public is crying out for new measures. On the other, it wants to boast about how well it is doing at reducing crime compared to previous Tory governments.

New Labour has ended up using two different sets of stats: the new set of measures to show that crime is rising, and the old set to show that it’s falling. In its press release for the 2002/3 crime data, the Home Office was careful to factor out the inflationary increase that resulted from its new reporting procedures. Blunkett may talk about Britain falling apart under the reign of ‘feral children’ – but he also promotes Labour’s successes in reducing crime by 25 per cent since 1997.

This shows that the debate about crime has little to do with the offences people are or are not committing. Crime can be said to be going up or down depending on the message that politicians want to get across. Today, the government is grabbing hold of the criminal justice system, and twisting the processing and judging of offences in an attempt to make political gains.

By promising to protect people from crime, the government is hoping to build new connections with the public and to regain public trust. Blunkett said the crime strategy aims to develop ‘trust and security in society’ and to ‘respond to people’s sense of insecurity at a time of rapid social change’. Blair talked about the fight against crime as a ‘personal crusade’, saying that he wanted to ‘build a new partnership with the decent law-abiding citizens to improve the quality of life in every neighbourhood’ (8). Here Blair is setting himself up as a bringer of order, as somebody who will lay down the line on ‘rules…and proper behaviour’.

New Labour is also looking to the criminal justice system to provide a new basis for community cooperation. To this end, members of the public will be encouraged to become involved in issuing antisocial behaviour orders, and helping to make decisions about policing priorities.

Blair says that the focus on crime is not ‘clever politics – just instinct’; indeed, there are some pretty base instincts behind the new policies. Just as schoolchildren try to make friends by picking on a common enemy, the government talks about taking the side of ‘victims’ and ‘law-abiding citizens’ against the ‘criminals’. ‘For the first time in my political lifetime’, says Blair, ‘the politicians, police and public are on the same side’.

The criminal justice system is being used for publicity stunts. The government promises to identify the country’s 5,000 most prolific offenders and to bear down on them – they will be ‘intensively monitored, caught, punished and more effectively rehabilitated’. In short, the authorities will pick on a certain number of bad types in an attempt to make an example to the rest of the public. The government also promises to bring 150,000 more offenders a year to justice by 2008, compared with 2003. What if 150,000 more crimes aren’t committed – should the police draft in some subs to keep the numbers up? The police will also be given new powers to slap more ‘fixed penalty notices’ on people, effectively making policemen into judge and jury.

New Labour’s drive against crime suggests that it is losing its grip. It was when the Tory Party started losing it in the late 1980s and early 1990s that it began trying to reassert ‘Victorian values’ and to go ‘back to basics’, laying down a line on public behaviour while its political initiative failed. Similarly, Blair is retreating from his failed crusades in Iraq and elsewhere, to turn his attention to binge drinking and graffiti in inner cities.

The anti-crime drive didn’t help the Tories then, and it’s unlikely to help New Labour now. Appealing to people’s fear of crime is no way to build new connections with them. People who are worried about strangers waiting for them around the next corner are likely to be just as mistrustful of politicians and others in authority. This promotion of the crime issue is hardly going to make the public throw themselves into the trusting arms of Blair and Blunkett.

And the criminal justice system is hardly the best route to the new communities that Blunkett so desires. A genuinely ‘responsible community’ would mean adults ticking children off when they behave badly, and setting down some common standards of behaviour. Antisocial behaviour orders mean people appealing to the police to solve minor misdemeanours rather than dealing with the problem themselves. This undermines the authority of local adults.

So there is no epidemic of crime, though there may be an epidemic of government attempts to make political mileage out of crime. Perhaps naming and shaming Blunkett could be the remedy.

(1) Observer, 18 July 2004

(2) From Statistics – annual report, Essex police; and
Crime figures: how the UK government has changed the record, by Bruno Waterfield

(3) Changes in how police record crime, Home Office

(4) United Kingdom Parliament, 13 January 2004

(5) Key points from the 2002/03 data, Crime in England and Wales, 2002/3

(6) The wonderful world of Asbos, BBC News, 19 July 2004

(7) ‘Perceptions of and concern about crime in England and Wales’, in Crime in England and Wales 2002/3

(8) See the Home Office strategic plan; and Blair’s speech, A new consensus on law and order

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Topics Politics


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